14 "'I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; 15so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you!'" Proverbs 7.14-15
Dear friends in Christ,
At first glance you might think that this passage from Proverbs refers to a righteous and wise person who has done the proper thing, offered sacrifices to God, and has thus been allowed to seek and find God. You'd be wrong. The speaker quoted here from the seventh chapter of Proverbs is a person on the prowl for an adulterous good time, whose spouse is away on a long journey. Wisdom, who is a character in the book of Proverbs, would have us avoid such a one, and so Wisdom describes the person who falls into the clutches of the would-be-goodtimer as one who follows "like an ox to the slaughter…like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing it will cost him his life…Her house is the way to Sheol (the land of the dead), going down to the chambers of death."
Note that the temptress thinks that offering sacrifices and paying vows clears the way for all kind of illicit behavior. She believes that religious observance is a chore to complete quickly so that the fun can begin. Wisdom would have us avoid false belief such as this; we were never meant to live in this way, nor can we live in this way for long. Wisdom is right: when religion becomes a chore, it leads us down the way of death. Faith cannot live in an environment of requirement. There is no room for faith when all we hear is "you must – you should – you ought – you have to – you need…" In fact, the demands of requirement tend to lead us away from faith into the type of foolish and dangerous life Wisdom warns against in Proverbs 7; it's as if we thumb our noses at what is required by going as far in the opposite direction as possible. There is no way to faith through the demands of requirement; that way lies danger, destruction and death.
Why bring this up? Two reasons. First, we're about to begin a stewardship program here at Peace. In a few weeks, Pastor John Lee from the Northwestern Minnesota Synod Staff will be joining us to preach and help kick off a two-month stewardship program. But this is not a stewardship "drive," in the sense of an NPR campaign or some sort of telethon. The theme of our stewardship program is "Stories to Tell, Gifts to Share," and the point is this: what we do here as a congregation is pretty incredible at times, and those incredible things come from our stewardship of what God has first given us. I want to invite you to consider telling the story of how God has touched you through the ministry of our church – you can tell the story through the newsletter, through an email to the whole congregation, through a
Second, there's a thing that kills the work of the Spirit in any congregation, and that thing is an atmosphere of requirement. As a matter of fact, I believe that requirement kills the spirit in just about every venture we can undertake. In our school systems, the "have to" nature of standardized testing is killing intellectual curiosity and replacing it with a culture of "teaching to the test." People like me, who struggle with weight and appetite issues, have known for years that diets and their "have to" power can be broken in a heartbeat; instead of talking about diets, we remind ourselves about health and the positive results that come from making good choices. My generation chafes under the yoke of requirement like no other, for good reasons and bad. So why would we expect the church to be any different?
If we decide that the motivating power of our congregation is going to be requirement, I can guarantee you that we will soon find ourselves dying a slow and painful death. Any church that is founded on the power of words like should, ought, must, have to, and need will soon become a joyless, lifeless shell of a church, where all the observances are observed and no one has any idea why. Is that the kind of church we want to be?
A wise pastor from the Twin Cities told a group of conference pastors a few years ago that "negative people cannot set the agenda for thriving congregations." I don't want to be a negative person. I want to believe that God is up to something among us. I'd rather not be a pastor at all than be a pastor who bullied, guilt-tripped and hounded his people into his vision of what a church should be. I hope you feel the same way about your contribution to our congregation. There's nothing healthy about a church that offers nothing to its members but requirements and spiritual chores. What is healthy, and what I do hope to see in us, is an atmosphere where members are encouraged to share their gifts, where truth is spoken in love, where we can speak honestly to each other about the realities of what we're trying to do as a congregation. To be sure, there are some consequences that can't be avoided. Sunday School doesn't happen without teachers. Lights don't come on if we can't pay the electric bill. But acknowledging those consequences doesn't have to be accompanied by accusation, and sometimes the best way to address needs and desires is to simply say, "We'd like to do this" and see if someone might catch the vision and support it prayerfully and financially.
If you're feeling as though your presence is required at the church, as though you're paying your religious dues so that you can live guilt-free until the next time you walk through the door of the church, I'd advise you to stop and think about what it is you're doing to yourself. Is it really faith that is keeping you here? If not, what is? Do we really want to be that kind of community? Wouldn't we rather be a place of joy, whose members come together because we find life and faith here? Wouldn't we rather be a place so good that others would want to be here with us? Wouldn't we rather be a place so filled with grace and mercy that people found it hard to stay away? I invite you to think about what that might look like, to tell your story and share your gifts and be a part of something filled with God's Spirit, the eternal YES that binds all of creation together in goodness. Or, as Wisdom says in Proverbs 7: "keep my commandments, and LIVE." Amen.
Yours in Christ,